What It Is, Ain't Exactly Clear
As I've been hinting at since part one, there's still some debate over how many party systems we've gone through. Historians pretty much agree on when the first four ended (all the times we've already covered), but by some accounts the fifth is either still on going, while others say it ended in the late 1960s. The argument against is that there wasn't a significant, rapid shift in the composition of congress, which had marked every other transition. The argument in favor is that there was; it wasn't a large net change nationally, but it was, regionally, almost a complete reversal.
Since their inception on the cusp of third party system, the Republican party had enjoyed its greatest support in the north, and overwhelming support from African-Americans; conversely, the Democratic party had been able to rely on the "solid south" for many years. But there had been signs that this certainty wasn't quite so certain after all, going back as early as 1948, when Harry Truman backed the civl rights platform of northern Democratic leaders. This prompted several dozen southerners to walk out of the convention, whereupon they founded the Dixiecrat party, and nominated Strom Thurmond for president. Truman won the election narrowly over Thomas Dewey, while Thurmond took four southern states.
During Truman's administration, he found his policy objectives blocked by the so-called Conservative Coalition, consisting of a majority of Republicans and a large minority of the conservative southern Democrats who had favored Thurmond. In 1960, during the nail-bitingly close election between civil-rights supporter and Democrat John F. Kennedy, and Republican candidate Richard Nixon (who distanced himself entirely from the issue) fifteen electors in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, refusing to vote for either of the major candidates, voted for Harry Byrd, who had not at any point announced himself as a candidate, but who was a strong segregationist and conservative Democrat.
But 1964, perhaps, was the true turning point. Lyndon Johnson, who had assumed the presidency upon Kennedy's assassination, was all-but assured the party nomination. Still, he had to weather surprisingly strong primary challenges from segregationist Democrat George Wallace, and narrowly avoided a messy convention fight over civil rights brought on by competing Mississippi delegations. Meanwhile, for the Republicans, Nixon had been a strong bridge between the moderate wing of the party, which was predominantly based in the north and led by Nelson Rockafeller, and the conservative wing, which was led by Barry Goldwater and quickly growing—and incidentally picking up segregationist former Democrats—in the south. But Nixon refused to run, and in a highly fractured vote, Goldwater took the nomination. On July 2nd, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, allegedly saying "We have lost the south for a generation." But in exchange, the Democrats gained the votes of most African-Americans and turned many northern Republicans into swing voters.
A month and a half after the bill's signing, on September 16th, Strom Thurmond switched parties; other segregationist Democrats followed. Goldwater lost the election terribly, but more importantly, compare the 1956 electoral map and the 1964 electoral map: in just eight years, just two presidential election cycles, had almost completely reversed the map. Even though congress didn't show any great change in party split, the regions from which they drew their greatest support had changed completely. I would count that as being as significant, if not more significant, than when the debate over silver brought about the the fourth party system.
So what does this mean for today's third parties? Unfortunately, not much. At least, not much that's helpful. Wallace would make a third-party run in 1968, running on a pro-segregation platform and taking the old south, but a resurgent Nixon would win that election. As in the transition to the fourth and fifth party systems, the two existing parties had managed to hold on, lithely jumping on new issues when necessary and adroitly absorbing and swapping large swaths of various voter demographics as they became disillusioned with the alternative. The two have exchanged the white house and control of the chambers of congress with increasing regularity since, while third parties continue to fail to find a foothold. But the strange bedfellows that make up each of the parties are perhaps a chink in the armor; one that may lead us to a seventh party system! A possibility that we will discuss in the next installment.